By American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, Inc. | AIANTA
Group tours have been a popular form of travel for centuries. Today, however, group tourists often get a bad rap as they are erroneously lumped into a stereotypical image of a boisterous, ethnocentric quasi-bully, seeking quantity over quality as they try to cram ten cities into three days of travel.
So bad is the impression of this type of “tourist,” most of the world’s largest packaged travel companies include “Don’t Believe the Stereotype” disclaimers throughout their marketing materials.
In today’s travel climate, the group tour model is changing as consumers are increasingly ditching the mass market mentality in favor of more interactive, experiential programs. For this type of traveler, Native tour programs are perfectly poised to serve as the antidote to the mass tour program.
Here are just a few Native tour programs finding success in providing anti-tourist experiences.
Nez Perce Tourism began as a vision in 2017 when CEO Stacia Morfin was hiking with her daughter. In her vision, one of her ancestors appeared to her and told her she was to open a tourism business on the reservation. Stacia said her ancestor told her that the purpose of this cultural tourism company would be to have Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) people tell the story of the Nimiipuu themselves and to ensure that the traditional knowledge of the people continues to be shared among future generations.
In researching her new company, Stacia found that there were 164 businesses in the Lewis & Clark Valley and 90 percent of them were telling the story of the Nez Perce. None of them were owned or operated by Nez Perce natives. Knowing that, Stacia knew there was a huge opportunity for her company.
“[Visitors] don’t want to go to a [National Park] and meet someone in a hat sharing the story of you. They want to meet you,” Stacia said. “They want to hear your songs and hear the drumbeat.”
Today, her business offers a variety of interactive tours created to connect visitors to Nimiipuu culture. Programs include boat tours, Appaloosa horseback riding, rafting on the sacred riverbeds of the Nez Perce, as well as a two or three-day tour where visitors can encounter a comprehensive Nez Perce experience, including petroglyph viewing, wildlife/bird watching, and cultural demonstrations.
Pueblo of Acoma
Built atop a 367-foot sandstone bluff in a valley studded with sacred, towering monoliths, the Pueblo of Acoma is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. Acoma offers visitors the privilege of having an inside look at their people’s cultures and traditions that have been carried on through generations.
In doing so, the Pueblo has placed an extreme importance on visitors practicing proper etiquette and respect when visiting Tribal land. To ensure that visitors adhere to these regulations, the Acoma Tribal Council put together a set of guidelines that all guests are to follow when visiting the Pueblo. The guidelines highlight visitor etiquette, photography guidelines, and a dress code.
… the Pueblo has placed an extreme importance on visitors practicing proper etiquette and respect when visiting Tribal land.
Tatanka Rez Tourz
Native-owned and operated Tatanka Rez Tourz is based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Run by father-daughter team Warren and Tianna Yellowhair,
Tatanka Rez Tourz offers guided tours throughout the entire Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Rather than offering a standard “tourist” experience, the tours provide guests with the opportunity to learn the language, culture and history of the Lakota people.
Tatanka Rez Tourz often brings in presenters and artists from the community to give visitors multiple perspectives and to help promote their Lakota brothers and sisters. Each tour begins with a formal introduction about who the tour guides are, who their parents are, and who their grandparents are. Tianna and Guss do this to make connections with their visitors, to see if they are related, and to pay homage to their ancestors.
Located in Sitka, Alaska, Sitka Tribal Tours offers tour packages that showcase Sitka’s rich history and culture. While the company provides visitors with a look at everything unique to Sitka, the Tribally owned company focuses on Tlingit Native culture and Alaska Native experiences. The tours are targeted to cruise ship passengers as well as overnight visitors, with a variety of culturally-oriented programs available.
All guides employed by Sitka Tribal Tours are residents of the community and participate in annual team training led by Tlingit elders and local historians to ensure cultural authenticity and historical accuracy. Sitka Tribal Tours stands out from other area operators by ensuring all guides are Alaska Natives with a connection to Sitka’s culture and history.
All guides employed by Sitka Tribal Tours are residents of the community and participate in annual team training led by Tlingit elders and local historians…
Be Native Tours, owned by the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, showcases local culture through various pre-built itineraries, including its one-day Chickasaw Legacy tour. Exploring south-central Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Legacy tour includes stops at the Chickasaw Nation Information Center, the Chickasaw White House, the National Capitol Building, Council House Museum and the Chickasaw Bank Museum. Guests can also add on local stops at the Chickasaw Cultural Center, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and overnight at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center or Artesian Hotel.
Be Native Tours augments its revenue model by providing fully customizable tours in Oklahoma and the surrounding states, allowing travelers and tour operators to build the exact itinerary they want.
Be Native Tours also provides step-on guide service for travelers and travel companies requiring on-the-ground assistance. The company has a team of local experts who share insider information about events, dining, landmarks and must-see attractions so that each guest has a personalized experience.
Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation
Covering more than 25,000 miles and four states, the Navajo Nation is home to some of the world’s most iconic visitor destinations. Governing these private lands, the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation department was formed to “protect, preserve and manage Tribal parks, monuments and recreation areas for the perpetual enjoyment and benefit of the Navajo Nation.”
Fortunately, Navajo Nation shares these private lands with visitors, albeit through a strict set of guidelines that warn, “All areas on the Navajo Nation are closed to non-Navajos unless you have a valid camping, hiking, or backcountry permit issued by Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department or other duly delegated Tribal authority. Failure to have a permit is considered Trespassing on a Federal Indian Land.”
Guided tour companies operating on Navajo lands are also strictly regulated through the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation department as well as by policies set by the Department of Economic Development.
Today, a dozen or so Navajo-owned companies operate tours on Navajo Park lands, including Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours. Jaslynn Begay, the company’s marketing manager, believes Tribal tourism is poised to be an incredibly popular tourism segment in the very near future.
Her advice to other Tribes and Native-owned businesses looking to start a tour company?
“[Anybody] can create a tour operation and be successful as long as they stay true to what they’re doing.”
–Jaslynn Begay, Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours
AIANTA maintains a list of Native American tour companies in the US and what makes them each unique. Visit www.aianta.org/native-american-tours/ to get some ideas about developing for your own Native tourism businesses. Or view AIANTA’s free Interpreting Culture: How to Run a Successful Tour Business webinar at www.aianta.org/interpreting-culture/.